Parkinson’s Law is the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
The notion is simple:
- If you give yourself a year to do something, it will take a year.
- If you give yourself a month, it will take a month.
- If you give yourself a day, it will take a day.
Strategically applying Parkinson’s Law is one of the easiest ways to cut the unnecessary “fat” from a project.
When you proactively give yourself less time to do something, you’re forced to focus on only those things that produce the desired result.
This is why Parkinson’s Law has often been coupled with the Pareto Principle or 80/20 rule, which states that for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
The 80% Approach That Accelerates Learning and Results (confidence required)
Dan Sullivan, the founder of Strategic Coach, has a connected idea he calls the 80% approach. According to Dan, “80% gets results while 100% is still thinking about it.”
If you have too much time to do something, you’ll quickly reach the point of diminishing returns.
Perfectionism is not a virtue. It’s a waste of time and a cowardly way to live. Instead of overly thinking about or “perfecting” your idea, the far better approach is to quickly get to 80%, and then throw the idea out there.
Will you get feedback, sometimes negative by doing this? Absolutely. But you’ll also learn much faster by testing the essence or core of the idea on an audience.
In order to approach learning and growth this way, you must have confidence in yourself. You must be willing to throw yourself “out there” and be willing to figure out the rest on the fly.
You must also be open to having your mind changed. For Dan, as an example, he believes that his audience, and their reaction, is at least half of the battle in developing his ideas.
Rather than egotistically trying to prove he’s right, Dan wants to learn. He expects to be surprised, knowing that the feedback he will get will be surprising to him!
He wants to be surprised.
This is how he learns. It’s the fastest way to learn. Never shield yourself from feedback. Get the essence of what you’re trying to do and immediately get feedback. Reward your audience for giving you feedback, even if negative.
Parkinson’s Law as a “Forcing Function”
If you want to learn fast, this is a great way to live.
Apply Parkinson’s Law to everything you do.
Give yourself shorter timelines.
Giving yourself shorter times is a FORCING FUNCTION, which is a situational constraint that forces desired results.
When you know you only have 60 minutes to complete something, you’re going to be really focused.
Forcing functions, when applied correctly, help you get into a flow state. The goal of a flow state is that you’re entirely absorbed in what you’re doing. There are no distractions. The stakes are high. Feedback is fast, sometimes immediate.
Parkinson’s Law on Steroids: Applied to the Self, Not Time
There is another way of looking at and applying Parkinson’s Law. First off, to repeat: Parkinson’s Law is the notion that “work expands to fill the time given.”
A separate but similar principle is the idea that “humans expand to fill the responsibility given.”
Let me explain:
- Human beings are incredibly adaptive.
- Humans adapt to their roles, circumstances, and environments.
- There is, certainly, a breaking point, when too much pressure has been applied. However, it is always worth testing where that line is.
- When the line has been crossed, and you reach a state of overwhelm: there are emotional regulation and other techniques to quickly adjust or recover.
Here are a few examples from my own life:
- When my wife and I became foster parents of three children, we had never been parents before. We had never really studied parenting. We were both graduate students. The growth curve was extreme, painful, and fast. We had to learn parenting on the spot. Feedback was immediate. Our failings and incompetence were immediately revealed. We learned and adjusted fast.
- When my financial adviser recommended I begin automatically “investing” a specific amount every week. My adviser told me to have a certain amount comes out of my business account, directly into a Schwab investment account, every single week. He told me to set an amount that would stretch me a little bit. That would be a little bit scary. Given that it was automated, I wouldn’t notice it. Quickly, we would adapt to not having that money. Almost subconscious and instantaneously, my income would rise to replace the money that was immediately being invested, rather than sitting in my account to be stared at or spent.
Both of these examples from my own life have shown me that as a person, my ability to expand to my circumstances is far greater than I give myself credit for.
We avoid making big decisions because we are afraid of what will happen. Yes, risk should be calculated. Don’t jump off a cliff.
But at the same time, taking a leap into a new circumstance or role is the fastest and most aggressive way to learn and change.
Like Dan Sullivan’s 80% approach: you don’t need to have it all figured out. You can never have it all figured out. Feedback is key to learning. You only need to know that you feel good about the decision. Then, you need to courageously jump.
With the automatic investment decision, it was a little scary at the beginning. Courage is always required to build confidence.
But overtime, confidence is built. Once confidence is built, you’ve adjusted to your new circumstances. Your subconscious has caught-up to and adapted to your courageous actions, and now, it no longer requires courage. Now, it’s your new normal.
Your job, then, is to continue upping the anti. As a human, you’re going to adapt to whatever circumstances or forcing functions you’ve placed on yourself.
As an example, my wife and I now have 5 kids. Is it busy? Yes. Is it sometimes overwhelming? Yes. But have we adapted to the situation? Yes? Has our lives “normalized”? Yes.
Now this isn’t to say our lives our “normal” compared to what they were. But our lives feel normal to us now. We have adjusted and adapted.
This all reminds me of the quote from the British philosopher, Alain de Botton, who said,
- My question for you is: Do you have the courage?
- Are you willing to jump?
- How fast are you willing to learn?
- How far past 80% do you need to go in order to make a decision?
The closer you get to 100% certainty about a decision, you’ve already wasted a lot of time. You’re probably not getting results.
And chances are, your whole notion about the decision is wrong anyways. You need feedback. Your ideas and decisions need to be “tested” and “adjusted” in the real world. Not just in your head.
As this image shows, when you first initiate a new and intense change, the effort required and “pressure” will be high. However, overtime, you will adapt to your new circumstances and it will require far less effort.
If you attempt to grow slowly, you won’t experience the full emotional effect of immediate and powerful feedback.
You’ll slow your own progress.
It’s better to drink from a fire-house, and adjust the lever when you need. Will you experience a greater emotional “shock”? Yes, but overtime, you build confidence.
Overtime, it stops being so painful. With increased confidence comes increased ability to make decisions quickly.
You can gather relevant information faster and immediately begin moving forward toward results and learning.
Because you’re confident, you know you can adjust to whatever comes your way. You know you can figure it out.
Does it still take courage? Absolutely. But underneath that courage is a whole lot of confidence, propelling you forward.
What can you do, today, to begin expanding yourself?
What greater level of responsibility can you take on, which in the moment may feel difficult, but quickly will become your “new norm”?
There’s one more IMPORTANT reason this principle is so key: Life will FEEL just as difficult either way.
If I had not become a father of 5 kids, my life would still “feel” just as difficult. I’d have my problems, challenges and responsibilities.
You grow as your “sphere” grows.
If I hadn’t started saving thousands of dollars every week, I wouldn’t have raised my income capabilities. I’d be making less money, and thus, I wouldn’t have a growing stockpile of assets and a growing level of confidence.
The opportunity cost is enormous to not live this expanding principle.